Zombie Moms: Powering Sleeplessly Through Motherhood

Arianna Huffington argues that we are in the midst of a sleep-deprivation crisis.  Her book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, has sparked new discussions about the negative repercussions of sleep deprivation and the way in which it compromises our health and overall well-being.

There are few people as sleep-deprived as new mothers, especially working mothers in America who have to return to their jobs within weeks of giving birth and meet the same professional expectations as everyone else.  The challenge is even greater for moms of premature babies, who require additional time and attention.

Three altMuslimah moms – two lawyers and a journalist –  discuss how they managed to cope with sleep deprivation, premature babies, and professional expectations.  They also give advice to other professional moms navigating through similar challenges.

Mariam:  I remember returning to work at my law firm in Chicago after my three month maternity leave.  The first few months I was back I was walking in a daze.  I was perpetually exhausted, barely getting four hours of sleep a night.  I’d wake up at 5:30 a.m., drop my baby at my mom’s house, lug my breast pump in its case onto the Metro train and sit at my desk by 8 a.m. to research cases, write briefs and prepare for depositions. My arms throbbed from carrying around my son and then hauling my office bag and pump miles into the city, my puffy eyes watered, my head swam from exhaustion and my neck and shoulders burned from stiffness and stress. The dense legal texts would just bounce off of my eyes.

After nine hours, I’d catch the 5 p.m. train home, and even on the train, I’d continue working in order to reach the expected billable hours mark. I’d arrive home by 6 pm, desperate to see my baby but dreading the sleepless night ahead of me.

Sofia:  I had an extremely difficult pregnancy with my daughter.  Because of a previous ectopic pregnancy, I experienced deep anxiety that I would miscarry.  As an older first-time mom, I couldn’t sacrifice my pregnancy, so despite financial hardship, I left work. My daughter, Jahan, arrived nine weeks early and, although I had assumed I would return to part-time work after her birth, I became a stay-at-home mom for the next three years.

Premature infants pose very specific challenges to parents, making it nearly impossible to return to conventional work schedules for months, sometimes even years.  We were blessed that our daughter suffered no serious health problems, but she was born at just under 3 pounds and spent two months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) learning how to eat.  Babies in the NICU are subject to an unusual amount of stress:  beeping monitors, new nurses on every shift, weekly blood draws–all during a period when they would ideally have still been in the womb.  I felt compelled to be in the NICU all day, every day, pumping milk and giving her as much skin contact and comfort as I possibly could.


Sofia with her daughter in NICU

Phase two began after she came home and I began to teach her how to nurse. Preemies tend to sleep very lightly and for shorter periods, so every two hours, my daughter would begin mewing with hunger.  Soon after we brought Jahan home, she had a stop-breathing episode, requiring that I vigilantly monitor her breathing in the night.  I think I went that whole year without sleep.  For me, there was no way to stay physically or emotionally connected to the workplace; my tiny baby required everything I had.

Shaheen: My third child was born four months premature, weighing in at only 1 pound 3 ounces. He remained connected to machines and ventilators in the NICU for over three months. The fact that my husband had just accepted a job in another state and only came home on the weekends exacerbated the stress. I was left to single parent three children, the youngest of whom had major medical challenges.

After giving birth, I returned  home without my son. It felt unnatural and incredibly lonely but I had no time to process what was happening because within three weeks of giving birth, I went back to work. I had no choice because I knew I would need to take maternity leave when the baby came home from the hospital. I was juggling my other two children, caring for my newborn in the NICU, teaching and grading the work of over 100 students in my three classes and trying to meet deadlines for freelance articles that I had promised before my sudden delivery. This was all while I was still healing from a C-section.

I barely slept during that time period. My anxiety and the endless drives between the hospital, work and home stole what little time I did have to rest. Caffeine was my best friend and kept me upright and functional. It also helped that my mother came to stay with me and provided the support my children and I so desperately needed at that time.

This schedule continued while my son was in NICU for 100 days. When he finally came home, he was still on oxygen and had to take many medications and vitamins at specific times in the day. That meant that during my maternity leave, I got up every hour and a half to either feed him or administer medication or adjust his oxygen levels. When he finally came off and his medicines were reduced, I finally felt like I could close my eyes again. Suddenly four hours of sleep at night seemed an amazing gift.

Mariam:  When I was going through those difficult periods I would often wonder how people could look at me – a woman with a twelve-week-old baby – and believe that I could really perform as well or be as present as everyone else.

I would peek into the office of the male lawyer who worked right next to me, and while I’d be hunched over pumping milk while trying to read briefs during lunchtime in my office, this guy would go off to the gym!

I’d feel panicked thinking that I have to compete with him and others like him – and someone like me who was operating on four hours of sleep couldn’t possibly be as smart, creative, energetic or enthusiastic as the gym lawyer.

Shaheen and Sofia, did you have similar experiences?

Shaheen: I absolutely felt the pressure to remain competitive. Academia is an interesting field. Studies have shown that women in academia are negatively impacted during their maternity leave because while we are busy taking care of our babies and healing from the process of giving birth and breastfeeding every few hours, men who take leave after having a baby use that time to produce more scholarship. It puts women at a huge disadvantage.


Shaheen’s children at Dani’s first birthday

When I came back to work, I would struggle to juggle my classes and my new schedule with a young baby at home — not to mention two very understanding older children, who I think I often wound up neglecting during the first year – all the while feeling like I was being judged for not doing as much as my male colleagues.

I would try to overcompensate by taking on additional writing projects to prove that I wasn’t slacking off, but I never felt like I was doing enough and felt perpetually burned out and anxious. That certainly didn’t help me to sleep any better even after my baby started sleeping through most of the night.

Sofia:  I absolutely knew that I couldn’t keep up with the demands or expectations of the workplace after my daughter was born and didn’t re-enter the workforce until my son turned one.  I was extremely grateful to find an amazing nanny, but the process of searching her out convinced me that the child care system in this country, particularly for very young children, is broken. I compared notes with friends and relatives in France and Canada, which have, respectively, a free national childcare system and up to 14 months of paid maternity leave. By contrast, more than half of my new income would go to child care costs, and, having been in the workforce in one way or another from the age of 16, I was not entitled to any paid maternity leave.  Still, my time at home had been extremely isolating, and I needed, both financially and emotionally, to return to work.

Because my husband had a long commute, and I still had a nursing child at home, I found the social expectations and especially the travel expectations of even my part-time legal work challenging.  I juggled them as best as I could, but when we had the opportunity to move closer to family, we jumped on it.

Mariam:  Now that this phase of my life is behind me, I reflect on what I could have done differently to make the whole experience easier.  If I had to do it over again, I would do three things differently.

One, I’d delay my maternity leave for as long as possible, and even take unpaid leave for as long as my firm would permit.  Two, I would gradually return to a full-time schedule rather than jumping right back into things.  Three, I’d stop comparing myself to the gym lawyer or anyone else – because it’s virtually impossible for working moms to have the same career track as someone who does not have children.

What would you ladies do differently?

Shaheen: Well, I would have asked for more help. Just straight out asked, instead of trying to juggle everything on my own. I would have also stopped holding myself up to a standard that was not possible given my situation. I had never failed in any way professionally and I was so afraid that my new  circumstances would diminish me in my employers’ eyes, that I worked doubly hard to prove that I was superwoman.

Sofia:  I felt  guilty about leaving my job as a lawyer during my first pregnancy that I picked up part-time work at a Montessori school in my last trimester.  At the time, the extra income felt valuable, but if I had to do it again I think I’d try to take the long view and put my feet up!

I had a colleague in Illinois that I often commiserated with about the challenges of being a working mom.  At the time, she was working up to asking our firm for a change in her schedule that would allow her to  pick her daughter up from kindergarten.  She was grateful, she said, to work for an organization where most people would stay with the firm for the length of their careers; this meant that it was an organization willing to see employees  through the various “seasons of their lives.”  I think that’s the perfect way for employers to view parents of young children in the workplace, as well as employees with temporary disabilities, illnesses, or the responsibility of caring for elderly or disabled parents.

And I think that’s a great way for working moms to think about ourselves: people who are no less committed to their professions than anyone else, but who are in a season of life in which we may need to shift attention and priorities.


Sofia’s children

Mariam:  After going through two pregnancies and births while working, I realized that we need to be extra-supportive towards moms with young children.  One of the women who worked for me recently had a baby, and I made it a point to reassure her that she could count on me and some of the other women in the company to help her in whatever way possible.  I urged her to go home early every day the first week she returned.  I made it clear that she could work from home as much as possible. And I took her out for coffee when I could see she was frazzled, and gave her a chance to chat with me about the pressures of being a working mom and unburden herself.  I’ve learned that sometimes we have to cut each other some slack – a foreign concept in the American workplace it seems.  Have you found that to be the case as well?

Shaheen: Having another woman support you in the workplace is invaluable. It is wonderful to have a male colleague or boss as your ally, but there is something particularly comforting and strengthening about having another woman who has been exactly where you are standing now empathize with your balancing act.

Shaheen with her son Dani

Shaheen with her son Dani

I’ve never had the problem of a male boss or colleague not supporting me while I was pregnant or after I returned from maternity leave. And I’ve had  female colleagues and bosses who went the extra mile to be flexible when I needed it, but pushed me with challenging assignments when I needed those. Unfortunately, I’ve also had some not so great experiences with women colleagues who felt that my personal challenges as a mom were an inconvenience in the workplace and reflected badly on our shared gender as professionals. This mentality of disapproval and judgment is counterproductive.

When women stand up for each other, it makes for a positive, more fulfilling environment.

Sofia:  I remember one morning in particular when my nanny cancelled at the last minute.  I was training an office full of busy attorneys, paralegals and support staff who had all shifted their morning schedules to attend.  My husband was an hour and a half away by train in downtown Chicago, all of our friends had already left for their jobs, and we had no local family.  I did the only thing I could do:  I packed toys, snacks, a blanket, and a diaper bag and brought my 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son to the office.

As I walked by several offices with my kids in tow, many of my co-workers in the call center–a part of the program not involved in that morning’s training–called out to say hello to the kids.  Then one by one, they popped their heads into my office, offering to take shifts watching the kids while I prepared for and led my training seminar.  And they did, until my husband could make it out of the city a couple of hours later to pick up the kids and take them home.  It was a deep lesson in shared humanity.  My Managing Attorney, who was in the training but worked in another part of the building, never knew my children were in the office that day.  To his endless credit, when he later learned what had happened, his only regret was that he’d missed the opportunity to meet them.

Mariam:   Now my boys are six and nine and though they drive me crazy at bedtime, they are usually asleep by 8:30 and have to be dragged out of their beds in the morning.  I’m able to get at least seven hours a sleep a night now, and I feel like a normal human being again (for the most part!).   At what point did you ladies find that things became easier?

Mariam's son Hamza visits her office

Mariam’s son Hamza visits her office

Shaheen: My daughter just turned 13, my son is 9 and the baby is almost 2-years-old. I now sleep somewhere between five to seven hours a night, but sometimes less because the baby will stir because he’s hungry or has a wet diaper. He was a surprise baby so I had grown used to having older kids who went to sleep in their own beds, allowing me to relax in the evening with a book or T.V. show. I didn’t expect to contend with fragmented sleep, but here we are and I know it’s going to be a while before I can fully relax in bed with no interruptions. No complaints though! I’m very grateful for my sleepless nights because it means I have three amazing angels that I can hug during the day.

Sofia:  My children just turned four and six, and they’ve been reasonably good sleepers since the age of two.  We also have much more family and community support since moving back to the East Coast, and I find that helps enormously to alleviate our anxiety.  Even when they are not actively providing child care, my parents’ presence in the children’s lives creates an invaluable level of security and stability.  Looking back, I’m enormously grateful that I’ve had the flexibility to work part-time and freelance over the last three years.

Sofia Ali-Khan is a public interest lawyer and a writer.  Her recently viral post, “Dear Non Muslim Allies…” and other writings can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.

Shaheen Pasha  is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Mariam Ahmed is a regulatory lawyer and writer, and also the Chair of the AltMuslimah Advisory Board. 

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